Schweizer Heimatwerk, best of Switzerland

By Manuela Paganini

Edelweiss, cows and the Matterhorn: the classic symbols of Switzerland make for eternally popular souvenirs, but sometimes you want something a little fresher. There is one store that sells both traditional and contemporary designs, always unmistakably Swiss.

The words “made in Switzerland” stand for precision, quality and functionality – down-to-earth values with a long tradition that can be seen in the famous Swiss army knife, Swiss watches and music boxes. All of which are sold in the inimitable gift shop Schweizer Heimatwerk; but there is much more on offer. Browsing their shelves you are just as likely to forget about stereotypes completely and simply fall in love with something utterly individual.

An unusual winter crop

The name Schweizer Heimatwerk means “Swiss Home Factory” – and that is what Schweizer Heimatwerk is about, drawing on a long cottage industry tradition. In 1930, the Swiss farmers’ association founded the store to sell products the farmers made at home over the winter time. Soon, Heimatwerk became a non-profit co-operative, but for a long time, the farmers’ association remained its most important member.

From the start Schweizer Heimatwerk encouraged genuinely Swiss arts and crafts. Its support enabled local craftspeople to start up businesses of their own and provided them a regular income. The tourist market grew in importance in the 1950s, when Schweizer Heimatwerk opened its first store at Zurich airport. From then on, the production of top-quality handmade souvenirs became a key business area for the co-op.

The pleasure of giving

Today, Schweizer Heimatwerk is an entirely modern retail business. While exquisitely carved wooden cows can still be seen in store, contemporary design has grown more and more important. Alongside the cowbells Schweizer Heimatwerk now sells handmade vases and Swiss fashion labels.

In this contemporary segment, things don’t need to have a relation to Swiss iconography. “Although a lot of design plays with Swiss clichés,” says Erika Mathis-Brassel, chair of the board. “There are so many ways to reinterpret our heritage.”

The traditional and contemporary segments are equally important, she says. Swiss customers are more interested in contemporary design, while tourists often buy things clearly associated with Switzerland: Swiss Army knives, fondue dishes decorated with edelweiss, or watches of renowned brands. These top-end souvenirs may be intended as gifts for those waiting at home; but then, Mathis-Brassel points out, “for themselves, tourists often buy more personal articles”.

The slogan “the pure pleasure of giving“ shows the brand’s understanding: “Giving is not just about the recipient, but also about the giver,” says Mathis-Brassel. “Ninety per cent of the things we sell get gift wrapped.”

So far, there are seven stores in Switzerland, located on the streets of Zürich and Basel as well as at Zürich and Geneva airports. The range of products is carefully adapted to each location. Each store is spacious and bright, deepening the pleasure of browsing.

Community undertaking

To this day, Schweizer Heimatwerk remains a co-operative; nobody profits from the company’s earnings. “All the profit is used to promote Swiss design,” Mathis-Brassel emphasises. But despite a common assumption, Heimatwerk is not funded by the government and like any commercial enterprise, it must be run on a sound financial footing: “The things we sell need to sell themselves.”

That is ensured by the evident quality of everything in the shop. True to Swiss standards, the products are made to exacting standards, with innovative and high-value materials, and are almost impossible to resist. Viability is also ensured by the wide range available, from a Fr16 Swiss army knife to music boxes for Fr10,000 – something for everyone and every budget.

Through the sale of its products, Schweizer Heimatwerk encourages Swiss manufacturers and craftspeople to continue producing their unique designs. It is the main distribution channel for more than 400 designers and manufacturers, for many of whom they provided start-up support. That initial relationship often becomes a longstanding partnership; and the cachet of the Schweizer Heimatwerk brand may enable the crafters to impress other retailers and expand their businesses.

Standing out from the herd

“Switzerland has more to offer than cows and edelweiss,” says Mathis-Brassel.“Nothing against cows, even contemporary design uses them with great success. But there is so much more.”

Of course, the shops do sell cuckoo clocks, Swiss army knives and edelweiss-patterned shirts. But another top seller is the Solar Mobil – a model of a car powered by solar energy – reflecting the real-world innovation being driven by Swiss imaginations (see SwissNews June 2013, p18).  

Another highlight is the Matterhorn snowglobe; in concept, very similar to hundreds of souvenirs around the world. But this one is reduced to the bare bones: just the Matterhorn shape inside a clear glass ball with tiny white snowflakes. Like the flag itself – one of the most iconic and widely used flags in the world – Swiss design is all about stripped-down simplicity.

“Our aim is to sell souvenirs that aren’t kitsch,” explains Mathis-Brassel. The prices may seem steep to those used to pile-em-high tourist tat, but they offer real value for money. “The prices are in the top segment, but that’s where our competitors aren’t. Many people aren’t used to paying fair prices for good quality.”

And since there’s always a market for impulse buys, some of the souvenirs are cheaper (while still of good quality), so that plentiful sales will continue to support the original Swiss designs.

Photo © Heimatwerk

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